Reflection – 26 July 2020

Here’s my reflection for Sunday 26 July

The online worship session will start at 11.00. I will be leading worship this week – it’s virtual cafe church. If you want to join in just email me – newarkcongregational@virginmedia.com – for details. We’d love to see you.

Mark Taylor

Sunday 26 July 2020 – A Reflection

As we are no longer able to meet for worship due to the virus situation we will offer a weekly reflection by email or delivered to the home of church members.

If you can’t join us by telephone perhaps you could sit each week and read this at the time we would normally meet for worship – in that way we would still in some way be together.

Our call to worship:

Come!

Come and worship,

you who woke early and you who slept late;

you who come often, and you who don’t.

Whether we are first or last or somewhere in between,

there is room for all of us in God’s kingdom,

and more than enough grace to go around.

Let’s worship God together!

Let us pray

You, O God, love us from the moment of our conception,

You know us and you love us in the womb,

You love us and you call us from before the moment of our first breath,

and you love us when we first see the light of day.

As a mother/father loves her/his child before she/he ever sees it,

and then embraces it gently from the moment of its birth,

so you love us—and we thank you.

Help us dear God to love one another in this way….

Lord hear our prayer.

You love us, O God from the time of our naming

You love us in our growing and hold us as we take our first steps.

You love us and walk beside us

as we explore the world with eager hands and eyes

As a mother/father loves her/his child as she/he sees it grow and develop

so you love us—and we thank you.

Help us dear God to love one another in this way…. 

Lord hear our prayer…

You love us, O God, as we mature and seek our way,

You love as we become aware of the world around us,

You love us as we smile and play,

you even love us when we say no and when we begin to stray.

As a mother/father loves her/his child as she/he sees it become proud and tall,

so you love us even when we sin and fall..

Help us dear God to love one another in this way….  

Lord hear our prayer…

We thank you God for loving us when we are unloving

for caring for us when we are uncaring,

and for calling to us when we go far away….

Help us dear God to love one another in this way…

Lord hear our prayer…

Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

As it’s café service here’s the traditional quiz. Answers are at the end.

This month it’s a picture quiz – all these people share the same first name

I think today I’m some way off-piste in terms of our theme for July and August – which is ‘leaning into God’, but I feel moved to speak about something because of what happened last week.

Late last year Deborah took a phone call from her dearest friend, a woman called Barbara who she had known since secondary school. In that call Barbara told Deborah that she had been diagnosed with cancer on the brain. It had started as a skin cancer that went undetected, and by now it was terminal. She wasn’t going to get better.

There was some treatment which she started, and it was successful at first. The tumours shrank.

But some time in the spring we got another call – the latest scan showed that the tumours were growing again, the treatment wasn’t working any more so it had been stopped. She’d been sent home from hospital. Barbara was expected to die quite soon.

Of course this was when we were all in lockdown. Barbara and her husband Jon lived in a lovely house right next to the beach on the East Coast. We had a quandary. If we visited her so Deborah could see her friend again we’d be breaking the rules. If we obeyed the rules we wouldn’t see her. Inspired by Mr Cummings we decided we needed to have our eyes checked and we drove off to the East Coast.

We spent an hour with Barbara and then left to come home. When we left her husband asked me if I would conduct the funeral for Barbara when the time came. He knew I had a role in the church and though neither he nor Barbara were ‘religious’ said he couldn’t think of anyone better to do it. Of course I said yes.

Barbara was expected to die very soon. In fact it was several weeks before we got the phone call. The funeral date was set for 17 July. I had a meeting with the family to plan the day. It was clear that both Jon and Mark (Barbara’s son) wanted to speak during the funeral and that they were both not only ‘not religious’ but were atheists.

It wasn’t therefore going to be an overtly Christian ceremony, but I made it clear that there would be at least some Christian content if I was presiding.

We’ll listen to a song now and then I’ll talk about what happened on the day.

This is a version of the blessing called the UK blessing – recorded by people from churches of all types all over the country during lockdown. It’s been seen over 3 ½ million times on YouTube.

Verse —

The Lord bless you
And keep you
Make His face shine upon you
And be gracious to you
The Lord turn His Face toward you
And give you peace
As we receive, we agree, amen

Chorus —

Amen, amen, amen

Bridge —

May His favour be upon you
And a thousand generations
And your family and your children
And their children, and their children

May His presence go before you
And behind you, and beside you
All around you, and within you
He is with you, He is with you

Reading – Luke 8: 4 – 15

The Parable of the Sower

People kept coming to Jesus from one town after another; and when a great crowd gathered, Jesus told this parable:

“Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it up. Some of it fell on rocky ground, and when the plants sprouted, they dried up because the soil had no moisture. Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up with the plants and choked them. And some seeds fell in good soil; the plants grew and bore grain, one hundred grains each.”

And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”

The Purpose of the Parables

His disciples asked Jesus what this parable meant, 10 and he answered, “The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God has been given to you, but to the rest it comes by means of parables, so that they may look but not see, and listen but not understand.

Jesus Explains the Parable of the Sower

11 “This is what the parable means: the seed is the word of God. 12 The seeds that fell along the path stand for those who hear; but the Devil comes and takes the message away from their hearts in order to keep them from believing and being saved. 13 The seeds that fell on rocky ground stand for those who hear the message and receive it gladly. But it does not sink deep into them; they believe only for a while but when the time of testing comes, they fall away. 14 The seeds that fell among thorn bushes stand for those who hear; but the worries and riches and pleasures of this life crowd in and choke them, and their fruit never ripens. 15 The seeds that fell in good soil stand for those who hear the message and retain it in a good and obedient heart, and they persist until they bear fruit.

Reflection

So we’ve heard about the lead up to the funeral – now I want to share with you what happened on the day.

As promised I included something Christian in the funeral. This is what I said.

“I said earlier that I’m a Christian and I want to share with you one very short Bible reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  If you’re not that way inclined feel free to ignore me for the next minute or two. Here it is:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”

I believe that to be true. And I also believe it to be true for everyone – whether you’re a believer in God or not.”

That was it. Fairly minimal – but I thought both appropriate for the occasion and something to think about. And something I genuinely do believe. Because I think that if we believe in a God of limitless love then surely we must believe that God loves everyone – not just a self-selecting few. Not just Christians – but Muslims and Buddhists and Jews and Buddhists – and atheists and agnostics.

My seed was sown and it didn’t take long to take root.

After the funeral I got talking to Mark, Barbara’s son. The atheist you’ll remember. Mark had spoken at the funeral too – this is some of what he said

“I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about what it means to be ‘good’. Whether it’s the way someone is born, or whether it a choice that is made? Long suffering friends and family have listened to me debate which has more value, someone who is inherently good, who is good with as little thought as is given to breathing, or someone who makes a conscious choice to be good, time after time? Whether it’s the result of, or the intention behind, an action which matters the most?

I don’t really have an answer to most of this. At least, not a consistent one. But I do know, with absolute certainty, through all my ridiculous over thinking, that mum was good.

She showed me how to be a good person, not by telling me, but by just getting on and doing it. And when I’m faced with a choice of what action to take, wondering what mum would think was as bright a guiding light as I’ve ever known.”

He’d given me those words in advance – just in case he was so overcome by emotion (which would have been quite understandable) that he wouldn’t be able to deliver them himself and I had to take over. Because whatever happened it was important that those words were said.

And when I read them I thought – well he might be an atheist but those words are very theological whether he’s aware of it or not. Here are some of them again.

“I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about what it means to be ‘good’. Whether it’s the way someone is born, or whether it a choice that is made?” That’s a very profound question you know.

Anyway I got talking to Mark after the funeral as I said and we got to talking about faith and theology.

The first thing he said to me was this: “The main problem I have with God is why you would need to have faith.” And the other thing he expressed concern about was the existence of Hell.

Now this is something that fascinates me – what is it that people who don’t believe in God think that Christians actually believe or think about God. And the reason that I think it’s so fascinating is that I’m convinced that if they realised

  1. That not all Christians think the same;
  2. That some Christians at least (including me) are very liberal in terms of their beliefs; and therefore
  3. That the obstacles that they think are in the way of them believing in God might not be a problem after all;

they might not think of themselves as atheists at all.

What I’d like us to do now is to stop reading for a minute and just think about what your answers would be to these questions:

  1. Do you need to believe in God for God to love you?
  2. Does Hell exist? If so
    1. What’s it like?
    1. Who goes there?

Let’s hear those verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans again:

“I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”

Nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God. Now when Paul wrote that it was certainly in the context of a letter to a church – to a group of believers in Rome. So you could read ‘us’ just as those that believe in Jesus. But  if Paul is right that nothing can separate us from the love of God (and he seems very certain on the point) that must include a loss of faith mustn’t it? If it’s nothing at all that can separate us from the love of God then even having no faith can’t.

 Certainly the God I believe in, the God I talk about week by week loves us all. And if you take that position then you can’t logically take the view that:

  • Actually he only loves people who are Christians (whatever being a Christian means – because I think every Christian is a Christian in their own way); and you can’t take the view that
  • Actually although he loves us all he’s prepared to condemn some of us to eternal suffering if we don’t believe the right things, or if we weren’t born in the right place to have a chance of being Christian.

You know sometimes some Christians don’t act like the sower in the parable at all. But they do act like something else in the parable. Like the birds – the birds that take the seed away before it even has the chance to start growing. They seem to see faith in Jesus like this:

There’s a person who is interested in the idea of God standing at the starting line and there’s a group of Christians saying – we’ll put a stop to that. We mustn’t let them think it’s easy – let’s put hurdles and barriers in the way – a whole list of things that are an obstacle to progress. A whole load of doctrines they need to say they believe in before they can possibly get to the place where they can call themselves believers.

I think our job should be to remove unnecessary barriers that are getting between people and God. Because as far as I can tell Jesus wasn’t interested in building barriers but instead was in favour of including in the Kingdom people who didn’t think they belonged. The leper, the tax-collector, the unclean woman, the Roman soldier.

There are two ways of seeing church in the next picture

In the first one there are certain people on the inside – that are in the church. And the flip side is that there are people that are outside. Who makes the decisions as to whether you are allowed in? Well those that are already in of course. You need to be like them to fit in.

In the second version there is no in or out. There’s just Jesus at the centre and everyone else around. You’ll see that some people are closer to Jesus, some are further away. Some who are further away are getting closer and some who are close are moving further away. Importantly no one at all is on the outside – no one is excluded. You might have guessed that this is the model of church I prefer. If people are interested in God, and if they are they should be interested in Jesus too because Jesus taught us so much about God, then who are we to say they don’t believe enough.

So when Barbara’s son Mark expressed surprise that belief in God doesn’t have to go hand in glove with a belief in judgement and eternal punishment it meant that we could start to talk about God in a much more helpful way.

I’ve invited him to come to my Pub Theology meetings in Newark when they start up again. I’ll let you know whether he turns up. I’m sure that at the minute Mark would be outside the circle. But in my model of church he might be a long way away – but I think he’s made a couple of small steps closer to the centre.

Here’s a light-hearted song on the parable of the sower. It’s for children really but I quite like it. There appear to be no songs at all about the parable in the regular hymn books.

Time for Prayer

For all the blessings of this life,
we give thanks to You, Creator God.
For families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers,

who nurture us, that the love of God may grow within.

That Your love, your Word, like a seed,

may grow to produce in us, good fruit.

May your love be like a seed, taking root and growing strong.

For the leaders of various nations and cities,

that they may lead with strong hearts and gentle hands and generous spirits,

with compassion and mercy, with wisdom and grace.
May they reflect your will guiding all their actions and decisions.

May your love be like a seed, taking root and growing strong.

For those who serve in harms way,
those who live in dangerous places,
those who live in areas of war and strife,
those who live in fear,

those who worry about employment, bills, food,

and struggle just to find dignity in life.
May your grace bring peace and safety to all people, one to another.

May your love be like a seed, taking root and growing strong.

For those who suffer from any illness or disease—

of mind, body, or spirit.
Restore these, and all those we carry in our hearts, to fullness of health—
health as only you, O God, can bring.
May your mercy shower each of us with healing mercy and love.

May your love be like a seed, taking root and growing strong.

For those who are dying, and for those who have died.

Send forth your comforting love.
Give solace to those who mourn.
Console those who grieve.
May your grace surround us

like a mantle upon our heads,
a shawl upon our shoulders,
a hand, to hold our hand.

May your love, be like a seed, taking root and growing strong.
Amen

Finally we will close by saying the grace:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ

and the love of God

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit

be with us all

evermore.

Amen

If anyone has any questions or comments about the above, or would like to talk to me about it don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Mark Taylor

07954 172823

newarkcongregational@virginmedia.com

Quiz answers

  1. Paul McCartney
  2. Paul Newman
  3. Paul Gascoigne
  4. Paul O’Grady
  5. Paul Hollywood
  6. Paul Robeson
  7. Paul Daniels
  8. Paul Simon
  9. Paul Gambaccini

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